The Future, the Past, and Creepy Dolls: Twilight Time Breaks the Eclectic Mold

A little over three years ago, a tiny niche distributor began to issue limited edition releases of movies that didn’t quite fit the norm on DVD, before quickly deciding to give viewers these exclusives only on Blu-ray instead. Films that, for one reason or another, had either become concealed in film vaults by excessive dust, archival copies of the six-thousand superhero movies produced this year alone, or which their parental studios didn’t quite have enough faith in to release single-handed (because, you know, why spend money to make the fans of classic movies happy when you have six-thousand superhero movies to offer them each and every year?). But it wasn’t until recently that Twilight Time had the crazy notion to do print two words that every home video aficionado loves to see on a title: “Double” and “Feature”.

And what a High-Def double feature they’ve given us, too. For you see, instead of continuing the legacy of say, MGM’s Midnite Movies series from a few years back or lowering their tastes sufficiently to unleash a pairing of vintage B or XXX flicks like Vinegar Syndrome is presently doing (although I’m just twisted enough to appreciate those, too), Twilight Time has dived deep into our collective subconscious in order to feed our nightmares for years to come. I’m talking, of course, about dolls. But these aren’t your average dolls, kiddies. Oh, no. These are demons as created by the one and only Gerry Anderson (Supercar, Stingray Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons), who delighted or demented many a youth during the ’60s (and beyond, thanks to syndication) wherein the entire cast is brought to disturbing life by marionettes.

Here, we get Anderson’s two feature-length film adaptations of his own popular series, Thunderbirds: the ill-received 1966 ditty Thunderbirds Are Go, and its 1968 followup Thunderbird 6. These Supermarionation relics of a time when kids with permanent contact highs from their parents’ parties present the adventures of International Rescue, an organization in the year 2065, as led by courageous heroes Jeff Tracy (as voiced by Peter Dyneley – who, thanks to a youth misspent watching old sci-fi, action, and horror movies, I only know as the guy from The Manster) and his son Scott (the great Shane Rimmer – thanks to a youth misspent watching old sci-fi, action, and horror movies, I know as “That Guy”).

Creepy, yes. But also extremely fascinating when you look at the minutely-detailed sets, props, and the fact that an actual, real biplane was accidentally flown underneath a motorway bypass for the second, underperforming-at-the-box-office film (which caused a bit of an uproar, but which they still kept in the film just the same). Still though, it’s much better than that terrible 2004 live-action Thunderbirds reboot featuring the kid from 24 and Bill Paxton (!) – a film that that caused one to wonder just how permanent those contact highs were for the kids that ultimately grew up to make it.

Winding back the clock a wee bit but still staying ahead in the realms of the future, we find the far-off world of 2018 populated by an entirely different breed of scary puppets. Based on a short story that first appeared in Esquire, Norman Jewison’s 1975 sci-fi sports movie Rollerball depicts a disturbing look at the human race, as controlled by an all-powerful energy conglomerate that essentially owns everything on the face of the Earth, and determines what the population reads, consumes, hears, and sees (just like today – yikes). And one of the biggest sensations that the mindless drug-addicted masses endure on a regular basis is the televising of the worldwide sport, rollerball.

Our story follows the plight of Jonathan E. (James Caan), a humble man who has become quite possibly the biggest name in rollerball history, and whose undefeatable spirit is something all of mankind can look up to. At the very height of his career, Jonathan is asked to retire by corporate bigwig Bartholomew (the great John Houseman, who not only began his career with Orson Welles, but who also descended to making television commercials in his later years just as his former theatrical partner did), and is offered a lush severance package in exchange for his cooperation. Trouble is, Jonathan doesn’t have any interest in retiring. Nor is there much else left in life for him since his wife (Maud Adams) was carried away by a corporate executive.

So, brave Jonathan decides to buck all authority and go on playing the game – a so-called sport that only loses its rules of safety and becomes a game of death as the days go on, culminating in one hell of a finale. The all-too-frequently ignored character acting talents of John Beck co-star as Caan’s best buddy, Moses Gunn is his trainer, Shane Rimmer (aka That Guy; see above) is the team manager, and the lovely Pamela Hensley is a piece of dystopian furniture (in the Soylent Green sense). Also featuring Burt Kwouk (who played Peter Sellers’ manservant in the Inspector Clouseau / Pink Panther series) as a doctor, and Ralph Richardson has a memorable bit as a librarian whose life has been reduced to taking care of one of those damned computer contraptions. It’s scary to think how many of this movie’s aspects have come true.

Falling back in time a little bit more, we find ourselves landing on the grassy playing field of an entirely different (but sometimes just as dangerous, depending on the crowd situation and mental state of those in attendance) sport: football. Or, as the surprising amount of poorly-educated, would-be journalists in America might call refer to it as, that wimpy soccer game. The Firm, ladies and gentlemen, is a 2009 remake of the 1989 telefilm of the same name, as originally helmed by Rita, Sue and Bob Too director Alan Clarke. Here, Nick Love (who later brought us a big-screen remake of the cult British police series, The Sweeney) brings us a tale about a group of football hooligans (whose pact makes up what we come to know as a “firm” in this motion picture outing) who travel from one end of the country to another to watch their team play (and who are even more frightening than their wimpy American football contemporaries – whose own shortcomings never seems to get mentioned on TV).

A movie that would have perhaps been best-suited as a double feature with Twilight Time’s previously-issued Fever Pitch, The Firm follows the personal lives – or more specifically, the dilemmas – of several of the firm’s representatives, whom I’m certain will someday become ideal rollerball contestants, based on the over-the-top levels of testosterone and various mental/sexual/emotional issues they apparently possess. Like the original Alan Clarke story, this one is based on actual events, though this adaptation tells the story from another character’s point of view just to keep things fresh. (Plus, there’s lots of great ’80s music in it.) And really, that’s about all I can say on this matter, as the fine art of recognizing and spotting obscure bit players solely from their work in crappy old B pictures is the only sport I’ve ever been able to play.

Seriously people, that athletic stuff just isn’t for me. I nearly killed one of my older brothers playing disc golf once. Really. It was awful. I watched in a what seemed like slow-motion as my less-than-graceful skill resulted in my releasing the frisbee-thing in my hand way too late, and stood helpless as it flew at full force directly into his right temple a few yards away. I thought for sure his time had come at first, then quickly re-assessed the situation and assigned any fears or trepidations toward the thought of my own impending doom when he recovered and, in a fit of screaming big college kid-like rage, started chasing after me across the course. I can only imagine this must be what aircraft pilots experience when they too are faced with their imminent deaths – which is a convenient analogy for leading us to the next feature in this line-up, Fate Is the Hunter.

Previously issued by Twilight Time as a Standard-Definition DVD (which went out of print in the beginning of 2013), Fate Is the Hunter is a fascinating little 1964 picture that begins with its prominently billed co-star – a so-comfortable-in-the-role-that-it-almost-hurts Rod Taylor – as an airline pilot who is killed along with 53 other people in a horrific plane crash shortly after they take off. From there, the great Glenn Ford (the fastest draw in Hollywood) comes into play as Sam McBane, an airline executive who served in the war with Captain Jack Savage (Taylor), and whose personal, former relationship with the deceased comes under fire when news comes out that larger-than-life Savage may have been drinking prior to flight.

Determined to find out the truth, McBane conducts an extensive investigation into the crash, interviewing the loves and friends his own former friend left behind. Nancy Kwan and an unbilled Dorothy Malone are two such loves, while Wally Cox and Mark Stevens portray some of the latter people in Savage’s life. Suzanne Pleshette is the sole survivor of the crash, character actors Nehemiah Persoff and Max Showalter are also in there, and an all-but-retired Jane Russell appears as herself in one of the film’s many flashbacks. Fate Is the Hunter makes a triumphant return to the label in a new Blu-ray edition that goes an extra mile down the beach in order to present us with an exclusive new bonus item, the 2010 documentary To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey (as written and directed by Twilight Time’s own Brian Jamieson), which I suppose makes this double feature of another nature.

Finally, boys and girls, we conclude with the 1961 John Ford western/adventure, Two Rode Together, the second James Stewart film from Twilight Time to hit Blu-ray since Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, which debuted in the five-title assortment released prior to this. Advertised in its theatrical trailer as the first western to put away all the shenanigans and tell us what the Old West was really like, Two Rode Together instead comes off like some sort of twisted take on Ford’s own The Searchers, only with a raging stream of chauvinistic bigotry and a total disregard for the value of human life taking the place of that other film’s stars. Oh, and Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark too – whose characters inhabit those views here for the most part (or for the whole part).

But it’s still a fun ride to take with these two great stars together. Stewart gets a chance to play a not-overly-kind sort of fellow, who is the marshall in a small town where he politely extorts ten percent of the local saloon in exchange for being in a friends-with-benefits situation with the establishment’s proprietor (Annelle Hayes). His easy-going life changes drastically when army man Richard Widmark accompanies Stewart back to base camp, wherein the superintendent (John McIntire) finagles and forces our anti-hero to head into Comanche territory in order to find and bring back several white folk who had been kidnapped by the savages over the last couple of years (decades, in some cases), which Stewart tries to convince the hopelessly hopeful people is a bad idea.

Shirley Jones plays the very young love interest for the much older Widmark, and beautiful Linda Cristal is the young Mexican woman Stewart saves from Comanche Woody Strode (Hollywood ethnic casting at its finest, kids) in this vehicle that Ford himself hated, and only did as a favor for deceased Columbia exec, Harry Cohn. Western regulars Andy Devine, Harry Carey Jr., and Ken Curtis are also featured, as is Henry Brandon – a German-born actor who not only plays a Comanche chief here (more fine casting there, kiddies), but also played an all-too-similar role in Ford’s The Searchers. Old time film heavy Edward Brophy made his final screen appearance here, while Ted Knight has one of his first big-screen (but barely-seen) parts.

Two Rode Together was a failure upon release, which is a big shocker considering that the director was only in it for the dough, cast actors who were entirely too old, too balding (both Stewart and Widmark wore hairpieces), and too hard of hearing for the leads, and kept the tone of the film entirely too lighthearted for a movie that was supposed to tell it like it was to boot). The film only ever rode onto home video in the US twice: once on VHS, and once on DVD in a special TCM Vault Collection set featuring Ford’s five Columbia films. It is not without its highlights, though. Witness a mostly improvised scene with our two stars awkwarding pretending to quarrel by the river. Or another memorable scene on the porch of a cavalry building wherein Stewart stutters his way through his lines so much that Widmark openly starts laughing outloud. Priceless.

Another priceless element here are the video transfers of each feature presentation, the very best of which have been provided to Twilight Time by their studio guardians for these High-Def releases. Equally impressive DTS-HD MA soundtracks accompany each film (ranging from Mono to 5.1, sometimes both), and English (SDH) subtitles are included with all of the releases except Fate Is the Hunter and The Firm – which is a bit of a letdown in case you’re the average dense American who doesn’t understand English accents.

As if they were honoring John Ford’s own stance on the film, Two Rode Together is the one title from this lineup to feature the least amount of bonus materials, which consist of nothing more than the slightly misleading trailer (which edits down several powerful scenes on account of the words used in them, i.e. “rape”) a second audio track with an isolated score, and liner notes by Julie Kirgo. The rest of the releases here also boast a trailer, isolated score (that includes both Thunderbirds movies), and notes too, in addition to their own indigenous goodies, such as the aforementioned Nancy Kwan documentary on Fate Is the Hunter, deleted scenes for The Firm, and an assortment of making-of/behind-the-scenes featurettes and audio commentaries for The Firm, Rollerball, and Thunderbirds Are Go / Thunderbird 6.

Interestingly enough, it is the double feature release that is garnished with the most bells and whistles. Part of this is due to the fact that many of these extras were already available from the old MGM DVDs (produced back when the studios actually cared about adding bonus materials onto their catalogue titles), another possibility for this could be attributable to this being Twilight Time’s first double feature. Personally, however, I think it’s because the folks at Twilight Time are intent on keeping me up at night one way or another – and what better way to do it than by extending the screentime spent focusing on creepy-ass dolls? Oh well, it sure beats having to watch any one of the six-thousand superhero movies that are currently waiting for me at the local cineplex.

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Luigi Bastardo

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